There was a man who was a stranger to all. He was homeless, penniless and had nothing other than the clothes on his back and the shoes on his feet. The stranger wandered from place to place, looking to find where he belonged, hoping for a miracle but never believing one was possible.
The stranger happened to be walking down a road through a wooded area that led to a place where houses had been built. The houses were big with great expanses of property. There were new cars in the driveway and everything was very clean. He wondered what it might be like to live in this way.
Another man, who owned the house the stranger was about to walk by, was working to remove a large tree stump from his property. He was struggling with it, by himself, unable to move it on his own. The stranger saw him struggling and approached and asked if he could offer his help to the man. The man, who was frustrated, angry and drenched in sweat, quickly agreed. Together, they were able to remove the stump and complete the task. The owner of the house thanked the stranger for his help and walked away.
The stranger felt slighted by this action. As he continued down the road, he became angrier and angrier. This man lived in opulence and splendor and could not offer the stranger, who obviously had nothing, a cash reward or even a meal for his assistance.
As the stranger prepared to bed down in the woods for the night, he continued to think of the man and decided he would take what he was due for his labor. The next day, he went to the edge of the forest and watched as first the man left in his car followed by his wife and their two children in another car. Once they were gone, the stranger broke into the house.
The stranger only wanted to take what he felt he was due, so he searched for cash and looked through the refrigerator and cabinets for food he could take with him on his journey. Finding no cash, and little food he could enjoy without having to prepare it on a stove or in a microwave, he looked through the house for anything he could steal. In the couple's bedroom he found a jewelry box filled with rings and necklaces and other items that looked to be of great value.
The stranger took the jewelry box and stashed it under his coat before he left the house. He planned to head up into the woods and travel to another town where he could pawn the jewels and dreamed of the piles of money he would receive in exchange for them.
As the stranger was leaving, a white van pulled up in front of the house. The stranger watched from the woods as three men exited the van and broke into the house. The stranger had not been aware that there had been a string of robberies in the area by these men. At first, the stranger was quite happy about what he was seeing. These men would be accused of stealing the jewelry box, not the stranger, and his crime would never be discovered. Wanting to ensure this result, the stranger memorized the license plate on the white van and descriptions of the three men.
Later on, the stranger approached the house again. The owner of the house had returned along with his wife and children. They had called the police, who were investigating the scene of the crime. The stranger reported what he had seen, hoping to now be rewarded, although he was burdened by the guilt of his own deeds. His information led to the arrest of the white van house burglars.
The wife asked the stranger if he had anyplace to stay or anywhere to go. Seeing his ragged clothes and his disposition, she became concerned about his welfare. She offered him coffee and food as he spoke to the police, and after he identified the thieves as those he had seen that morning, the wife asked if there was anything they could do for him. Without his information, the thieves would likely not have been caught, and certainly not before they were rid of the couple's possessions, all of which were recovered except for the jewelry box.
The woman was sad about the loss of her jewelry, more for the sentimental value of some of the pieces than for its monetary value. The police could only tell her that the thieves likely pawned the jewelry or got rid of it before they were caught. A search of local pawn shops and the like led to no clues, and the woman tried to reconcile herself to the fact that her jewelry was gone forever.
The man of the house offered the stranger the opportunity to do work in his yard and on his house in exchange for temporary room and board until he could get "back on his feet." The garage was turned into an apartment for the stranger, as the couple was not secure with allowing him access to the house. Knowing nothing about this man's past or emotional state, they were concerned about the safety of their two young children.
After several days, the stranger reached a crossroads. He could continue to work and live with this family, having a place to live that was warm and dry, food and drink, companionship and conversation. He thought about the jewelry box and how he could stay here a while and then eventually leave and take the jewelry with him. He could sell it in another town, another place, and no one would be any wiser to his deeds. He also considered "finding" the box and returning it to the woman. She had been kind to him and treated him like a human being rather than some outcast freak on the edge of society. He decided to return the box. He would find it during his work in the yard, in the woods that bordered the property. It had been dropped by the thieves somehow and he would be the hero for finding and returning it.
The night before he returned the jewelry box, the stranger overheard the man and the woman talking in the house. He learned that the man had stretched himself to the limits financially. Although he had a very good, well paying job with much prestige, his desire to reflect his status in his material possessions was overwhelming. The family's two new cars were top of the line, their house was one of the most expensive in the area, everything needed to be the "best" it could be, with "best" equal to expensive and highly regarded. He insisted on eating at the best restaurants, going on vacation to exotic and famous places, wearing the most expensive suits and even having his hair cut at the most expensive and trendy salon. In the end, he was left with little money, so much so that he had taken to doing his own work on the house and property because he could no longer afford to hire the professionals he once had. When the stranger came along, the wife had convinced her husband to take him in and only won him over when she suggested that the stranger seemed handy and might be able to take on the work around the house and property in exchange for room and board.
Now knowing this, the stranger felt strongly about returning the jewelry box to the wife. It was hers, and she was the one who had come to his rescue. The man of the house had abandoned him once, after the tree stump experience, and was ready to again after the stranger helped the police capture the thieves and return the couple's property. The wife was his true friend, and so the next day he "found" and returned the jewelry to her.
The wife was overjoyed. She embraced the stranger and thanked and praised him. Since he was getting along so well with the children that they referred to him by "Uncle," followed by his name, she insisted that he come and live in the house. There was a guest bedroom that was never used, and she moved him into it, giving him the finest linen and blankets of the house and helping him to decorate it so that it became a comfortable and pleasing environment. She offered him books to read, uncertain if he could read, but then learned that he could read very well, so she brought him more books. She asked him where he wanted to go in life. If he wanted to go to school, she would help him. Whatever he wanted to do, wherever he wanted to go in life, she vowed to help him in any way she could.
The stranger felt the guilt over his deeds increasing ten-fold after the wife showed him such love and compassion, but he dared not confess. He did not want to lose what he now had and feared a confession would see him out on the road again with nothing, perhaps even arrested. He lived for years with the couple. He studied a variety of trades, read many books, explored fiction, philosophy and science. Eventually, he attained a GED and applied to the local college.
During this same time, the man of the house began drinking heavily. He was burdened by increased stress at his job, his financial difficulties, and major losses in his stock market investments. He became moody and angry, and this was amplified by his sense that his wife was moving away from him and becoming closer to the stranger. As his mood worsened, so did the distance between the man and his family. It enraged him when he saw his children playing in the yard with the stranger, calling him Uncle and laughing with him as he did the things the man had never done with them. Eventually, his anger became so profound, his stress levels so high, that he would have a heart attack that would end his life.
After the funeral, at which the stranger was a pall bearer, the wife asked the stranger to stay with the family. As the circumstances changed, the guilt the stranger felt over his deception regarding the jewelry box became too much to bear. The night after the funeral, the stranger sat down with the wife and told her the true story of the day the house had been robbed.
The widow sat quietly for a moment, not knowing what to say. At first she felt cheated and scammed and was angry with the stranger, but as she considered the years and how events had unfolded, she smiled. If the stranger had not planned and executed his crime, he never would have seen the white van thieves and they might never have been caught, and if he had not stolen the jewelry box, they would have. The stranger had been a different man in those days, desperate and angry and feeling he had no friends in the world. The widow forgave him and asked him again if he would like to stay. There was still much work to be done around the house and he was attending night school in an effort to earn a college diploma.
"If I had told your husband this when he was alive, he would not have let me stay in your house."
"I married him when I was young and beautiful. I wanted the dream, the big house, lots of money for everything I desired, prestige, power and to be the woman everyone envies. That was all I wanted in life, aside from having a family with children, and now I have that as well."
"Then you lived your dream."
"I found the dream was empty once I lived it, and until you came into our lives I was a shell of a human being. We were married for over ten years. At the beginning it was like a beautiful romance, a princess in a fairy tale kind of thing. I had the most fashionable dresses, we ate in the best restaurants, I got the car I always dreamed of, we'd go on vacation to beautiful islands and villas in Europe. After a while it didn't mean anything any longer, and then I discovered it was all a lie. My husband was trying to spend money and buy me everything I wanted because it was the only way he could show his love. When I really needed him, he was curled up in a corner with a glass of bourbon in his hand cursing the world."
"Do you miss him?"
"Yes, but I was missing him long before he died, when he became empty and angry. I missed who he was when we met and he was this bright eyed kid in graduate school while I was a undergraduate freshman and he had dreams and aspirations. Somewhere along the line, the man I knew then died, long before his body died. There was nothing left when he died, he was empty. That day you helped him with the tree stump, the day you met him, you were angry because you felt he didn't properly reward you for your help. I know what that feels like. I know how he was able to make other people feel insignificant and meaningless."
"I'm sorry. I will have to leave in the morning."
The woman excused herself and went to her bedroom. The stranger sat for some time in the kitchen alone, contemplating the next path his journey would take. When the woman returned, she had a backpack. It belonged to her husband and he had used it once when they went camping. It was an elaborate, top of the line pack that had self-contained bedding. The woman had partially filled it with clothes belonging to her husband. She asked the stranger for one favor, to not leave without saying goodbye and to let her make breakfast for him in the morning and give him food for his journey. He agreed.
In the morning, as the stranger ate his breakfast, he watched the woman fill his new backpack with sandwiches and other food that would travel well on the road. She filled the pack as much as she could before giving it to the stranger. Then she kissed him, wished him well, and handed him a small but substantial amount of cash. "This is all I can give you, hopefully you will use it well. Good luck."
Several days later, the stranger was fishing a sweatshirt out of the bottom of the backpack. It was wrapped around something, so he unwrapped the sweatshirt and found the woman's jewelry box. All the jewelry that had been in the box the day he had stolen it was present and accounted for.
Along with the jewelry, there was a note on the perfumed writing paper that the woman used. Two words were written on the paper. "Thank you."
Translation 2004 by Keith John & Anastasia Christina
May be reprinted elsewhere with permission